First, let’s talk about what causes acne. Pimples form when the oil and dead skin cells on your skin combine to form a plug that blocks the pores. “As the P. acnes bacteria that naturally live on skin overgrow within this plugged follicle, the area becomes inflamed and this is when you start to see papules, pustules, and cystic lesions,” RealSelf dermatologist Sejal Shah, M.D., tells SELF. The treatments ahead work to exfoliate away dead skin cells, suck up excess oil, stop inflammation, and kill the P. acnes bacteria. There are even a few treatments that target hormonal acne specifically.
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Acne vulgaris is diagnosed based on a medical professional's clinical judgment. The evaluation of a person with suspected acne should include taking a detailed medical history about a family history of acne, a review of medications taken, signs or symptoms of excessive production of androgen hormones, cortisol, and growth hormone. Comedones (blackheads and whiteheads) must be present to diagnose acne. In their absence, an appearance similar to that of acne would suggest a different skin disorder. Microcomedones (the precursor to blackheads and whiteheads) are not visible to the naked eye when inspecting the skin and can only be seen with a microscope. There are many features that may indicate a person's acne vulgaris is sensitive to hormonal influences. Historical and physical clues that may suggest hormone-sensitive acne include onset between ages 20 and 30; worsening the week before a woman's period; acne lesions predominantly over the jawline and chin; and inflammatory/nodular acne lesions.
Oral antibiotics are recommended for no longer than three months as antibiotic courses exceeding this duration are associated with the development of antibiotic resistance and show no clear benefit over shorter courses. Furthermore, if long-term oral antibiotics beyond three months are thought to be necessary, it is recommended that benzoyl peroxide and/or a retinoid be used at the same time to limit the risk of C. acnes developing antibiotic resistance.
Light therapy is a treatment method that involves delivering certain specific wavelengths of light to an area of skin affected by acne. Both regular and laser light have been used. The evidence for light therapy as a treatment for acne is weak and inconclusive. Various light therapies appear to provide a short-term benefit, but data for long-term outcomes, and for outcomes in those with severe acne, are sparse; it may have a role for individuals whose acne has been resistant to topical medications. A 2016 meta-analysis was unable to conclude whether light therapies were more beneficial than placebo or no treatment, nor how long potential benefits lasted. PDT has the most supporting evidence of all light therapies.
If you have acne that's not responding to self-care and over-the-counter treatments, make an appointment with your doctor. Early, effective treatment of acne reduces the risk of scarring and of lasting damage to your self-esteem. After an initial examination, your doctor may refer you to a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of skin conditions (dermatologist).
The Pore Normalizing Cleanser is designed just to cleanse, not treat, which is a good thing: The Nurse Practitioner study emphasizes the importance of washing with mild cleansers in conjunction with topical acne medications to combat or avoid excessive skin irritation. This one is water-based and fragrance-free, and uses sodium laureth sulfate (as opposed to its harsh cousin sodium lauryl sulfate) to eliminate any chance for irritation.
Have you tried treating your acne with no luck? You might simply be using the wrong product for the type you have. Whether you have periodic breakouts or more stubborn cystic acne, there's a solution. We asked Dr. Neal Schultz, an NYC dermatologist, to share the best treatments for every type of acne. Read on for his expert product recommendations, along with some editor favorites, that'll give you clear skin in no time.
Recommended therapies for first-line use in acne vulgaris treatment include topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, and topical or oral antibiotics. Procedures such as light therapy and laser therapy are not considered to be first-line treatments and typically have an adjunctive role due to their high cost and limited evidence of efficacy. Medications for acne work by targeting the early stages of comedo formation and are generally ineffective for visible skin lesions; improvement in the appearance of acne is typically expected between eight and twelve weeks after starting therapy.
“Sometimes I see people try over-the-counter products just for a couple of weeks, they get frustrated, they say it’s not working, and they discontinue them,” Arthur says. “But it really does take a while to see the effectiveness. So unless you’re having a problem with the medication, like it’s causing severe irritation or dryness, it’s recommended to give it at least 2-3 months before switching to something else.”
Spironolactone is an androgen blocker. It can be used to treat hormonal acne in women (only) by reducing the production of androgens (male hormones) in a woman's body, which can then reduce oil production in the skin. If you're wondering how to get rid of acne overnight, keep in mind that aldactone can take up to three months to start taking effect.
Combination therapy—using medications of different classes together, each with a different mechanism of action—has been demonstrated to be a more efficacious approach to acne treatment than monotherapy. The use of topical benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics together has been shown to be more effective than antibiotics alone. Similarly, using a topical retinoid with an antibiotic clears acne lesions faster than the use of antibiotics alone. Frequently used combinations include the following: antibiotic and benzoyl peroxide, antibiotic and topical retinoid, or topical retinoid and benzoyl peroxide. The pairing of benzoyl peroxide with a retinoid is preferred over the combination of a topical antibiotic with a retinoid since both regimens are effective but benzoyl peroxide does not lead to antibiotic resistance.
Even better than one stand-alone cream is a multipronged combination of acne treatments. “A good place to start is to use a combination of salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and a topical retinoid,” says Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “Salicylic acid helps remove excess oil from the surface of the skin and exfoliate the dead cells, while benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria and helps reduce inflammation.”
Misperceptions about acne's causative and aggravating factors are common, and those affected by it are often blamed for their condition. Such blame can worsen the affected person's sense of self-esteem. Until the 20th century, even among dermatologists, the list of causes was believed to include excessive sexual thoughts and masturbation. Dermatology's association with sexually transmitted infections, especially syphilis, contributed to the stigma.
Simple alcohols like isopropyl alcohol, SD alcohol, and denatured alcohol are everywhere in acne treatment because they trick you into thinking they’re working: Splash some on and any oil on your face instantly vaporizes. However, these ingredients destroy the skin’s barrier, called the acid mantle. When your acid mantle is damaged, you’re actually more susceptible to breakouts, enlarged pores, and inflammation. To make matters worse, evaporating all the oil on your face can actually set your sebaceous glands into overdrive, leaving your skin oilier than ever. If any product included a simple alcohol high up in its ingredients list, we nixed its whole kit.
Postinflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) is usually the result of nodular acne lesions. These lesions often leave behind an inflamed darkened mark after the original acne lesion has resolved. This inflammation stimulates specialized pigment-producing skin cells (known as melanocytes) to produce more melanin pigment which leads to the skin's darkened appearance. People with darker skin color are more frequently affected by this condition. Pigmented scar is a common term used for PIH, but is misleading as it suggests the color change is permanent. Often, PIH can be prevented by avoiding any aggravation of the nodule, and can fade with time. However, untreated PIH can last for months, years, or even be permanent if deeper layers of skin are affected. Even minimal skin exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can sustain hyperpigmentation. Daily use of SPF 15 or higher sunscreen can minimize such a risk.
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Believe it or not, as with adolescent acne, hormones are believed to be mainly to blame. In the case of newborns, however, it’s not their own hormones that are probably prompting the pimple problems, but Mom's — which are still circulating in baby's bloodstream as a holdover from pregnancy. These maternal hormones stimulate baby's sluggish oil-producing glands, causing pimples to pop up on the chin, forehead, eyelids and cheeks (and, sometimes, the head, neck, back and upper chest).
Retinoids are medications which reduce inflammation, normalize the follicle cell life cycle, and reduce sebum production. They are structurally related to vitamin A. Studies show they are underprescribed by primary care doctors and dermatologists. The retinoids appear to influence the cell life cycle in the follicle lining. This helps prevent the accumulation of skin cells within the hair follicle that can create a blockage. They are a first-line acne treatment, especially for people with dark-colored skin, and are known to lead to faster improvement of postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Antibiotics. These work by killing excess skin bacteria and reducing redness. For the first few months of treatment, you may use both a retinoid and an antibiotic, with the antibiotic applied in the morning and the retinoid in the evening. The antibiotics are often combined with benzoyl peroxide to reduce the likelihood of developing antibiotic resistance. Examples include clindamycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzaclin, Duac, Acanya) and erythromycin with benzoyl peroxide (Benzamycin). Topical antibiotics alone aren't recommended.